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Working through the bushfires: a psychologist's experiences

2 Dec 2021

Bush Support Line Manager Stephanie Cooper reflects on her experiences living and working on New South Wales’ south coast during the 2019/2020 bushfire season. As her story shows, even those with mental health experience aren’t immune from the challenges posed by remote work and natural disasters.

After com­plet­ing my Psy­chol­o­gy Mas­ters and spend­ing sev­er­al years work­ing in Her Majesty’s Prison Ser­vice in the North­west of Eng­land, I felt that life was miss­ing that spe­cial some­thing’. One morn­ing, I decid­ed to emi­grate to Australia. 

Just like that, I left the north-west of Eng­land for the beau­ty of the Aus­tralian out­back, accept­ing a posi­tion with the local health district’s men­tal health ser­vice in Bro­ken Hill. The change was pro­found, yet I imme­di­ate­ly loved my new out­back sur­round­ings. When I dri­ve west nowa­days and expe­ri­ence the flat­ten­ing land­scape and the deep­en­ing red of the dirt, I know my heart is home.

After a few years, a chance to lead the men­tal health and drug and alco­hol team with the Roy­al Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice (RFDS) based out of Bro­ken Hill came about, and I leapt at it. The RFDS had until then been just a show I watched on TV as a kid. Now I got to turn up there for work every day and be a part of the invalu­able ser­vices and sup­port they offered across the outback.

Meet­ing my hus­band and hav­ing our first child in Bro­ken Hill was the icing on the cake to an unfor­get­table adven­ture. It was with a heavy heart when we drove away from The Hill’ sev­er­al years after first arriv­ing, choos­ing a sea change clos­er to fam­i­ly sup­ports on the south coast of NSW.

A part of me still yearns for the out­back; I think it always will. Yet, I have nev­er strayed too far from remote work. With­in a year of leav­ing the out­back, I stepped into rur­al and remote tele­health, as this is where my pas­sion con­tin­ued to lie.

The 2019/2020 bush­fire season

Work­ing and liv­ing in a rur­al coastal com­mu­ni­ty can have its chal­lenges, as I learned first­hand dur­ing the 2019/2020 bush­fires. Dur­ing this most intense peri­od of my career, and my whole life, we lived and breathed the fires. 

Our sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties expe­ri­enced the worst of it, while our town watched on, help­less­ly. At one point, the high­ways north, west and south were all closed. There was only one way we could go if the fires reached us, and that was east, onto the beach­es and into the ocean.

As a fam­i­ly, we rehearsed our bush­fire sur­vival plan until we knew it by heart. I swept ash from the gar­den, pre­pared sprin­klers around our home, and put lights on in the mid­dle of the day – the smoke blocked nat­ur­al light. We got used to chop­pers fly­ing over­head on their way to fill their buck­ets from the sur­round­ing lakes.

I would lie awake at night as my hus­band worked night shifts for NSW Ambulance. 

What if an evac­u­a­tion alert on the NSW RFS app came through and I didn’t wake up in time? I had it planned out how I would, on my own, get two sleep­ing chil­dren, a dog and the final bags into the car. Could we take our dog to the evac­u­a­tion cen­tre? Would we have to live in the car out­side? The fol­low­ing day, with these ques­tions still harass­ing me, I would then get up and go to work.

I lived the bush­fires in my per­son­al life, and then I was sur­round­ed by them at work.

There wasn’t a break. In my role with the local NGO I was work­ing for at the time, I put my hand up to see imme­di­ate bush­fire brief inter­ven­tion refer­rals. This work rolled into longer-term sup­port for those whose men­tal health was more sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect­ed, an oppor­tu­ni­ty I val­ued giv­en my inter­est and expe­ri­ence work­ing with peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced trauma.

My great­est strength at work was my team. There was a shared under­stand­ing and lan­guage of what we were all jug­gling. Some staff mem­bers had prop­er­ty and pos­ses­sions destroyed. Yet they turned up for work to see their clients and sup­port their com­mu­ni­ty. As a team of men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, we knew we were not invin­ci­ble and that our pro­fes­sion mixed with our per­son­al lives was hard. Real­ly hard.

It was easy to assume that, as a psy­chol­o­gist, I ought to be immune to the impacts of chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances. Yet I have nev­er expe­ri­enced stress at the lev­el I did dur­ing the fires. I too had to lean on my team and rely on my sup­port net­work, and I recog­nise how for­tu­nate I was to have a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly safe and engag­ing work­place dur­ing these unprece­dent­ed times.

That is not some­thing every health work­er is afford­ed, and it’s espe­cial­ly chal­leng­ing the fur­ther remote you go, as teams are often dis­persed and concentrated.

Lessons learned from the bushfires

Bush­fires were rel­a­tive­ly new to me, being from the UK. I know that now, because of these chal­leng­ing expe­ri­ences, I will be both emo­tion­al­ly and prac­ti­cal­ly bet­ter pre­pared next time. 

In a way, my expe­ri­ence dur­ing the bush­fires is sim­i­lar to the more recent expe­ri­ences of our health work­force in Aus­tralia. They are work­ing with­in the stres­sors, restric­tions and chal­lenges of COVID-19, con­tin­u­ous­ly exposed to stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, a risk of infec­tion, and a high-stakes vac­cine roll-out. At the same time, COVID-19 is insep­a­ra­ble from their per­son­al lives. This can be suf­fo­cat­ing as well as exhausting.

In my sit­u­a­tion, I need­ed aware­ness of my lim­its. I had to put bound­aries in place with news and social media con­sump­tion, as the fires start­ed to con­sume every wak­ing (and prob­a­bly dream­ing) minute. I am grate­ful to my pro­fes­sion for teach­ing me that it’s okay to not be okay at times. Reen­gag­ing with social activ­i­ties, when the fires and smoke allowed, returned some buoy­an­cy, and doing the nor­mal’ things in an abnor­mal ver­sion of our world was ben­e­fi­cial. The knowl­edge that this peri­od would end, or at least improve, was a source of strength, even though we didn’t know when.

Cur­rent­ly, the bush­fires are still very much a part of some people’s dai­ly lives. The wounds are still heal­ing, the scars still ten­der. Many still face post-dis­as­ter chal­lenges, includ­ing dis­place­ment from homes and rebuild­ing. For some, these impacts will be long last­ing. Enter­ing a new bush­fire sea­son exac­er­bates the trau­ma, and the planned local fire ser­vice burn-offs remind us of what we are try­ing to avoid. Yet there is also the strength­en­ing of com­mu­ni­ties and resilience that has grown from this disaster.

On reflec­tion, my most sig­nif­i­cant learn­ing was that I didn’t lis­ten quite enough to my needs. I still gave that lit­tle bit too much of myself to work, fail­ing to bal­ance my per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al lives. Not tak­ing annu­al leave when I need­ed it is one exam­ple. The idea of not turn­ing up for clients filled me with guilt; to take hol­i­days when they were going through their most ardu­ous life jour­ney was sim­ply too self­ish, or so it seemed. On reflec­tion, I know I would have had that lit­tle more to give had I tak­en more of an oppor­tu­ni­ty to fill my own cup with time off and professional/​personal breath­ing space.

The CRANAplus Bush Sup­port Line

I believed I had reached the pin­na­cle of my career when work­ing with the RFDS, until one day, with the fires still fresh in my mind, I came across an ad for a psy­chol­o­gist posi­tion with CRANAplus, entire­ly by chance.

CRANAplus had already had a pres­ence in my career as a psy­chol­o­gist. Their mag­a­zine had pro­vid­ed enter­tain­ment dur­ing my lunch breaks at remote clin­ics. I had fre­quent­ly rec­om­mend­ed the Bush Sup­port Line to my health work­er col­leagues and friends. To inad­ver­tent­ly come across an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be involved in sup­port­ing callers to the Bush Sup­port Line felt too good to be true. Sure­ly you don’t get two pin­na­cles of your career?

I haven’t looked back. It’s a priv­i­lege to sup­port our rur­al and remote health work­force for an organ­i­sa­tion such as CRANAplus. I’m for­tu­nate to be a part of such a dynam­ic and pro­gres­sive organ­i­sa­tion sup­port­ing those who are sup­port­ing our com­mu­ni­ties, along­side such a com­mit­ted, expe­ri­enced, and high­ly moti­vat­ed Men­tal Health and Well­be­ing team.

The work of our health work­force is demand­ing enough at the best of times. Dif­fi­cul­ties are exac­er­bat­ed dur­ing sig­nif­i­cant events like drought, floods, bush­fires and glob­al pan­demics. In the past few years, we have expe­ri­enced these sit­u­a­tions to a sig­nif­i­cant extent.

They have increased our respon­si­bil­i­ties to chal­leng­ing heights and put greater demands on our endurance.

If any­one is read­ing this and thinks their self-care plan needs improve­ment, their pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al bound­aries need realign­ment, or their men­tal health gen­er­al­ly requires some atten­tion, try con­nect­ing with col­leagues and loved ones. If these sources are not avail­able or prefer­able, reach for the phone and con­nect with our expe­ri­enced and pas­sion­ate team of psy­chol­o­gists on the Bush Sup­port Line by call­ing 1800 805 391.

We are here 24/7 to sup­port the psy­cho­log­i­cal needs of our hard­work­ing, invalu­able and ded­i­cat­ed rur­al and remote health work­force so that they can turn up and sup­port the health needs of our rur­al and remote communities.

Find out more about the Bush Sup­port Line and reach out on 1800 805 391 if you need support.